Conservative Evangelicals embrace God and green

Why some right-leaning evangelical Christians have become true believers in climate change. God and green go together, these conservatives say.

Kristoffer Tripplaar/Sipa Press/Newscom
Capitol workers cleared snow after an early-February snowstorm that shut down the federal government. Unusual weather patterns have fueled debate over global warming – including among those whose religious beliefs inform their positions.
Mark Umstot/Newscom
‘Doing something about climate change is loving our global neighbor.... And it’s about caring for our children and future generations, who are going to inherit this earth that God has given us.’ – Dr. Katharine Heyhoe (with husband Dr. Andrew Farley)

The cultural revolution of the 1960s and '70s included the birth of the environmental movement. That's when "there was a deep split, and the right stole God and the left stole green," says Jonathan Merritt, a 20-something evangelical Christian who sees himself as a political conservative but also as an environmentalist. "I think God and green go together, and I think they belong together."

While many Chris­t­ian denominations enthusiastically support efforts to combat climate change, evangelical Christians, who tend to be both theologically and politically conservative, have been caught up in an internal tussle over the issue in which skeptics seem to hold the upper hand.

But a new generation of Evangelicals such as Mr. Mer­ritt – who, he argues, carry less "baggage" from the 20th-century's cultural wars – are making a spirited effort to show that their religious beliefs and their environmental concerns are not only compatible but inextricably linked.

"I'm an environmentalist because I'm a Christian and not in spite of that fact," says Merritt, an author and speaker whose book, "Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet," will be published on Earth Day, April 21.

Conservative US Protes­tants are among those Chris­tians most likely to be skeptical that human-induced climate change is taking place. In a poll last year, only 34 percent of white Evangelicals agreed there is solid evidence that Earth is warming because of human activity. In contrast, 48 percent of white mainline Protestants agreed, according to the survey, released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Green evangelicalism

On the other hand, the students at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, who tend to come from conservative Christian backgrounds, are "definitely" more likely to accept human-induced climate change, says Susan Bratton, chair of the environmental science department at Baylor.

They've grown up hearing the environmental message and are "probably the greenest generation we've ever had here," adds Dr. Bratton, who has had seminary training and teaches a course on Christian environmental ethics.

Whether this "green evangelicalism" will continue to gain followers may depend on people like Merritt and Katharine Hayhoe and Andrew Farley, a married couple who are evangelical Christians and teach at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

Dr. Hayhoe, a research professor in the geosciences department, contributed to the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released in 2007, as well as a US government report on climate change requested by the Bush administration and released last summer. Dr. Farley teaches linguistics and a New Testament course, while also serving as a pastor at a local nondenominational evangelical church.

Answering skeptical questions

Farley, who's a conservative Republican, says he was "a very hard-nosed skeptic" about climate change until he began discussing the subject with Hayhoe, a supporter of action. "She would show me the data," he recalls. "And after being presented with the data, I would lose the argument." After a while, "I became increasingly convinced [and said to myself] 'I see it now.' "

Farley began referring people at his church to Hayhoe when they had questions about climate change.

Hayhoe, who speaks to many school and church groups, says she's realized that "people have a common set of questions. And they're very good questions, and questions that should be asked."

They include theories they've heard, such as that climate change is caused by sun cycles, that the Earth is cooling rather than warming, and that even if the Earth is warming, humans have nothing to do with it. "Once you provide people with answers, that's the information that they need to make up their own minds," she says.

"The more [scientists] look at climate change, the more we realize it's accelerating," she says. Spring arrives one to two weeks earlier in the US Northeast than it did 30 years ago. "The center for blueberry production has actually shifted out of Maine into Canada because the winters are warmer now." And just this year, kudzu – the invasive vine once confined to the US South – has been reported in Canada for the first time, she says.

Together, Hayhoe and Farley wrote a book, "A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions." Reactions to it have come from those who remain skeptics as well as from those who felt the couple didn't sound a loud enough alarm about the need to take action.

"I think we're right where we want to be – in the middle," Hayhoe says.

Their goal is to "present the scientific facts to Christians with the data and let them sit down and make up their own minds," Farley says. He doesn't preach about climate change from his pulpit, though – or about politics or social issues, for that matter. "I'm not going to pull out temperature charts and graphs at church," he says. "We become a social group and not a church at that point."

The often-cited passage in Genesis about humans having "dominion" over the earth doesn't mean "let's destroy it," he says. "That's silly. That's absurd."

Love for humanity should be underlie concern for the environment, says Farley, who earlier wrote the book "The Naked Gospel: The Truth You May Never Hear in Church," in which he talks about "living life from a heartfelt motivation."

Two recent events have Hayhoe, Farley, and Merritt scrambling to meet new skepticism about climate change and the environment. So-called "Climategate," based on stolen e-mails, has caused some to doubt a portion of the data in the IPCC report. And "Snowmaggedon," the record-breaking February snowstorms on the East Coast, seems to some to throw a fat snowball at the idea of "global warming."

"Climategate didn't do us any favors," Farley concedes. But the e-mails don't change the basic conclusions of a vast number of scientists "who have published in peer-reviewed journals of all kinds" study after study showing that climate change is real, he says. "The message that needs to be shouted clearly to everyone is that this is real, this is happening."

There's a big difference between ever-changing weather events, such as this year's big snowstorms, and slow-moving climate change, which is measured over decades, Hayhoe says. But unusually large snowstorms actually fit the pattern of more extreme weather predicted by climate-change models: "What is 'normal' is changing. Extremes in weather are becoming more frequent, [whether] drought or heat wave or rainfall events," she says. "Here in Lubbock three years ago, we had the longest dry period in history, over 110 days without rain. And then the very next year, we had the most rain we've ever had in a 24-hour period.

"You can't say any one event is due to climate change," she says. "But we see this pattern all across the US, all across the world, where these extremes are getting more and more frequent in both directions."

Hayhoe, Farley, and Merritt all note that Evangelicals don't have to agree with scientists on every issue, such as when the earth was created or whether humans evolved from lower forms of life, in order to believe that climate change is happening and needs to be addressed.

Embracing the environment

Merritt hopes that even those Evangelicals who can't bring themselves to accept human-induced climate change will accept other parts of the environmental message to care for God's creation.

Harming God's creation is as destructive as "tearing a page out of the Bible," Merritt says. "We are asked by God to act to preserve the planet and to protect the people who depend on the planet's resources." The command in the book of Genesis for humans to care for the world "has never been revoked, ever, in Scripture," he says. From the very beginning of the Bible "we get a very clear picture that God has gone green, and He's never looked back."

The reason Evangelicals should care about climate change is "not because we worship the earth," Hayhoe says. It's recognizing that the impact is likely to be most severe in some of the most impoverished areas of the world.

"Doing something about climate change is loving our global neighbor," she says. "It's about caring about people who are already hurting around the world. And it's about caring for our children and future generations, who are going to inherit this earth that God has given us."

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